Chapter 23 The Magic of Writing in Mediterranean Antiquity

In: Guide to the Study of Ancient Magic
David Frankfurter
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This chapter examines why and how the written word was so often credited with material power in antiquity. Much of the magic of the written word in Greco-Roman culture stems from Egyptian traditions of the hieroglyph as divine writing, an idea embraced by Greeks and Romans as a particularly exotic medium for materializing ritual procedures (binding tablets, amulets, etc.). The essay reviews the magic of the written word in Egypt, then moves to Greek views of writing as a medium for sounds and voices – i.e., not materially sacred – symbolized in the use of voces magicae and vowel arrangements in amulets and incantations. The idea of the hieroglyph in Greco-Roman culture inspired the notion of Ephesia grammata (magical “letters”) and the more specific practice of charaktēres – symbols that were meant to function as an otherworldly writing system.

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